A question I’ve been thinking about a lot: if you truly don’t know what you don’t know, how do you improve your work? Is there an upper limit to getting better at a craft?
It’s an important question, particularly for makers. When you make things for a living, the one really useful measure of success is documenting improvement over time. I look at my editing and writing today vs. five years ago, and it’s better. I look at it today vs. six months ago: still better. I’m filling the gaps, slowly but surely. But I wasn’t always improving my work, and God knows it’s easy to phone it in on darker days.
How do you avoid hitting a wall? How do you improve your craft when you’re already limited coming out of the gate?
- Ask: I ask myself every day, “What do I not know about this?” This is mostly a rhetorical exercise, of course. But it takes guts to acknowledge how little you really know, and it forces you to look at your work differently.
- Learn: Admitting you don’t know everything may take guts, but it takes discipline to close the gap. The only way to really learn new things after a certain point is to make mistakes, have people smarter than you call you on them, and then reverse-engineer your failures until you know something new for next time. It is really hard to do this in a disciplined way because your gut reaction is to fix it and try not to think about it. Don’t run from mistakes.
- Listen: If you were a good student (as I was), then for the first 20-odd years of your life, you probably got patted on the back more often than you got criticized. On the rare occasion someone dared offer a different narrative, you assumed they were wrong or mean. Don’t assume. If you really want to improve, listen to your critics, your managers and your editors; seek them out, ask for their opinion and take a lot of notes.
- Practice: You’re not great (yet). You may have talent, you may have taste, but you are NOT great yet. Great is a long-term play. I’m not even close yet, but I’m practicing. Want to be great? Make it your business to be the best at what you do through incremental progress and practice, and you will see bigger wins.
Do I have days of the week where I mostly put out fires and try to move on quickly? You bet. But I like to think I’m closing the gap a little more every day — and seeing progress motivates me to keep trying.